Student-teacher relationships? Just no, even for adults

Even when learners are consenting adults, 'teacher' status makes romantic relationships unequal, writes Sarah Simons

Student-teacher relationships? Just no, even for adults

The outside perceptions of what it’s like to be a college lecturer vary greatly. Before I was in the edu-game I had no perceptions of further education at all, because I didn’t know it existed. I assumed that “the tech” (as I knew it) was the natural habitat of plumbers and hairdressers. That was it. My assumption wasn’t from a skewed idea of what "the trades" were, but simply my own experience. My mum was a hairdresser and my dad a plumber. Both had attended “the tech”.

Over the years I’ve had to explain what FE is, loads of times. I had no idea of this world before I was in it, so I’m in no place to criticise other people who haven’t found out about us. Yet one of the things I explain is that FE isn’t just colleges full of teenagers. FE is adult education as well. And there are questions. I like questions. It shows I haven’t bored them to death with my FE evangelising.

Yet a surprise question occasionally crops up. The prospect of lecturers and adult students copping off.


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This idea always throws me off course, for two reasons:

  1. I keep my ear to the ground gossip-wise, and I haven’t heard about this happening even once. Staff on staff action, yes. Oh, they’re at it like knives in some colleges. But never any adult students. Not even when they’re no longer students and there would be fewer (bleedin’ obvious) reasons (getting sacked) not to embark on a ding dong.
  2. The thought of it makes me feel a bit queasy. This isn’t a comment on the plentiful charms of my adult students, who are, of course, all Clooneys and Anistons, charisma-wise. My yuck reaction is about the gross abuse of power that would have to take place for something like that to happen. Among many other things, it’s creepy.

Times have changed

I wonder if the inference that teaching adults is a little bit like Saturday night up the Playboy Mansion derives from misty, water-coloured memories of people’s own post-school education in different times.

When I was at drama school in the early ‘90s, teachers and students were at it left, right and centre. Pals who went to university in the olden days also recall a good deal of shaggery between staff and students. I didn’t find it particularly weird before I was a teacher, they’re all consenting adults after all, but now… Now it all feels very different.

I see myself in a quasi-parental role to students; all my students, regardless of age. Not in a patronising pat on the head way, but the acknowledgement that my duty of care is not only to help them learn stuff, but to support them, even to advocate for them when necessary. So no matter how equal I try to make my classroom community, there will always be a difference in status between my adult students and me.

Disparities in status

I recently watched a film I haven’t seen for ages and it got me thinking. Notes on a Scandal. Have you seen it? It’s the one where Cate Blanchett plays a 30-something secondary school teacher who has a sexual relationship with a 15-year old-pupil, which is uncovered by an older colleague played by Judi Dench.

I remember seeing it when it first came out in 2006, which was before I was a teacher. I remember feeling not exactly sympathetic to Cate Blanchett’s character, but definitely not repulsed by her. I remember thinking, “Well he’s very mature for an almost 16-year-old lad and she’s a stone-cold fox”. “He did all the seducing so it can’t be all her fault.” “She was dead naive being taken advantage of by that sex-pest teenager.”

I recently rewatched it and had a very different reaction. Now 13 years have passed, now I’m 11 years into a teaching career, now I’m the mum of an almost 16-year-old lad. I found it hard to watch the romantic scenes. I found myself looking away from the screen when they had sex. My reaction was clear. NO. NO. NO. Send that pathetic, narcissistic, delusional woman to prison immediately.

Obviously that fictional relationship was not just wildly inappropriate, but illegal. The curious questioning I’ve encountered about student-teacher relationships assume consenting adults are involved. However, post-Weinstein, post-#MeToo, I wonder if considerations of disparities in status, rather than simply ticking the box marked “consenting adults”, are gaining traction. I wonder if those questions might suddenly seem inappropriate to even ask.

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Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons

Sarah Simons works in colleges and adult community education in the East Midlands and is the director of UKFEchat